Sixteen Years Later, Tom DeLonge’s “Box Car Racer” Still Holds Up

...And the Ephemeral Side Project is the Best Work of His Career

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Sixteen Years Later, Tom DeLonge’s “Box Car Racer” Still Holds Up

Liam Gill, Arts Editor

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Tom DeLonge was my idol for a long time. His discography, encompassing three bands and maybe a couple hundred songs, served as the soundtrack to my life from about the age of nine when my sister put me on to Blink-182 with “All The Small Things” to fifteen. That music accounted for probably three quarters of my music library, and was with me through the thick and thin of the tail end of childhood and midpoint of adolescence. DeLonge was the reason I picked up the guitar in the seventh grade; the hours I’d spend in my room playing along to an Angels and Airwaves song through my little Vox VT-40 and busted up Boss DD7 delay pedal are honestly some of my favorite memories from those days. And don’t get me wrong, I am eternally grateful for what that music did for me, I’d be lying if I said the memories don’t come flooding back in a tidal wave of nostalgia the moment I hear any one of those songs. That music was too large a part of my early life to be forgotten.

But there comes a time in every young man’s life where he must stop listening to twenty-five year olds from eighteen years ago sing about being nervous for Prom, or having a crush in high school and seeing her at a party.

That said, one of DeLonge’s three musical projects has yet to lose its previous magic for me and if anything, has aged and developed like a fine wine.

The band Box Car Racer served as a side project for DeLonge and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker between touring cycles in December of 2001. The group’s first and only record, the 2002 eponymous Box Car Racer, was DeLonge’s experimentation with a darker stylistic approaches both lyrically and sonically; it was quite a dramatic departure from the largely happy-go-lucky pop punk anthems he was known for in Blink. For me, it is the only record from DeLonge that still holds up today in its entirety.

I’ve come to appreciate it for so much more than I did at ten years old, when I probably just liked listening to the guy with the weird voice yell swear words over angry guitar. My understanding of and appreciation for the album has changed in a way that little to none of DeLonge’s other music has.

Production and mixing on the record is raw and gritty while straying from being blatantly low quality, thanks in large part to the late record producer and Blink’s frequent collaborator Jerry Finn. The sound of the album as a whole is a far cry from the polished and squeaky-clean production heard in Blink’s discography, and is revisited in their final studio album, the eponymous blink-182 released in 2003.

DeLonge (left), Hoppus (right from DeLonge), and Finn (right)

What the guitars on the record lack in intricacy, they more than make up for in aggression and anger. Songs like “Tiny Voices” feature thinly overdriven and meager guitars in the verses, and then explode in the anthemic choruses, saturating the empty space with thick, aggressive, and angry overdriven tones. The drums follow a similar formula, sounding feeble and even somewhat tinny in the verses through only one or two microphones, then finally assault in the chorus with the maniacally skillful Travis Barker operating on all cylinders. Employed a few times on the record, this formula produces a song that teems with the aggression and hot-bloodedness every post-punk album worth its salt has. It’s truly visceral punk rock at it’s absolute best.Box Car Racer also features two acoustic ballads, and while DeLonge was no stranger to writing about love and heartbreak, “There Is” and “Letters to God” feature an emotional maturity and depth foreign to the vast majority of his past attempts at love songs.

DeLonge’s vocal delivery features his infamous So-Cal nasal whininess but with an intense and aggressive twist. His voice is pushed to the breaking point at several points on the record, matching the anger of the instrumentation but sonically contrasting the dark and heavy tones of the music.

Writing and recording of the album took place in six weeks beginning in December of 2001, a turbulent time for both DeLonge and the world. 9/11 had occurred just three months prior and was still very much a fresh wound. DeLonge was teetering on the precipice of addiction to prescription pain medications due to severe back and spine complications and surgery. The formation of the band with Barker, Blink’s drummer, also caused great tension between the trio, with Blink bassist and cofounder Mark Hoppus feeling betrayed. This tension would grow over the next few years and largely contribute to Blink’s very harsh and very public disbandment in 2005. As a result of these turbulent events, DeLonge’s songwriting on Box Car Racer is intimately dark and emotional, focusing on themes of apocalypse, confusion, mental turmoil, and addiction.

Watch The World,” no doubt inspired in part by the 9/11 attacks, incorporates the emotions and confusion of many Americans in the nation during the immediate aftermath of the attacks:

I watched the smoke, as it grew darker
And blew up through the roof
I watched the fed, saw them panic
As the fire grew
I saw Virginia, get rid of Langley
And its secrets too
I held your hand, and sat there knowing
That we’d make it through

The End With You” is an intimate glimpse into DeLonge’s personal struggles at the time:

I’ve been up all night long
Counting days that all went wrong
I opened my bedroom window
I wish this pain was gone
There are no useful drugs
To escape from feeling numb
I remember an amazing birthday
I remember when I was young

Elevator,” the final track before the album’s instrumental closer is a sobering and poignant memorialization of those individuals forced out of the World Trade Center by smoke and flames, with DeLonge singing from the perspective of a victim and Blink bandmate Hoppus lending his vocals from the perspective of an onlooking pedestrian. Featuring a single guitar repeating a single riff and a simple drum loop, the relatively minimal song serves as a disturbing reminder and heartfelt tribute to the victims of the attacks:

[DeLonge]

The building turned it’s back ignored my call,
The concrete looks too thin to break my fall,
The sunset stretched across this nighttime scene,
I counted people as I neared the street below…

[Hoppus]

I saw it all, I saw it all go down,
The shadow grew as he approached the ground,
The sunset stretched across this nighttime scene,
I turned away as he came near the street below…

Box Car Racer played a handful of shows in its short lifespan, and has long been disbanded. Speculation about the band’s return and possible release of new music has risen a few times from fans and DeLonge himself, but as a fan, that is personally the last thing I would want. The project did what it needed to for those involved in its creation: serve as an outlet. At the root of all great punk rock is someone with a slew of intense emotion and discontent with the world and their relationship to it, and Box Car Racer was no exception. Any attempt to recapture the rawness and legitimate aggression present in the 2002 album would be contrived. It should be allowed to stand alone.

Josh Withers
Box Car Racer live in concert, 2002.

Stream Box Car Racer today [be advised of explicit content]:

SPOTIFY: https://open.spotify.com/artist/0DK7FqcaL3ks9TfFn9y1sD

APPLE MUSIC: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/box-car-racer/69074

 

 

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About the Writer
Liam Gill, Arts Editor

Liam Gill is a senior. This is his first year writing for the the KnightWatch, and in addition to occasional op-ed pieces, he focuses on music and its...

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